How to Teach Children Emotional Intelligence

Woman and son making bouquetEmotional intelligence is a relatively new psychological concept, but it’s been backed by years of research. This kind of intelligence enables people to have positive interactions with others, to predict others’ thoughts and feelings, and to engage in appropriate levels of empathy. Emotional intelligence is strongly correlated with career and academic success because emotionally intelligent people earn the trust of their superiors, make colleagues feel valued, and attract admirers wherever they go. Like other forms of intelligence, early experiences and direct teaching can help children master the fine art of relating to other people. Here’s what you can do to help a child learn this valuable skill.

Practice Active Listening
Active listening requires not just that you listen to your child, but that you give feedback such as, “I can see you’re really angry right now” or “How did it make you feel when Julie said that?” Active listeners tend to have better social skills, so this listening style models a valuable behavior to your child. Perhaps more importantly, it helps your child master the art of conversation and encourages her to continue to provide you more information. Providing the right kind of information during conversations is an important social skill that will help your child in adulthood.

Teach Empathy
Empathy is the ability to predict and relate to other people’s feelings and, especially in complex situations, can be surprisingly challenging. Rather than forcing your child to reflexively apologize when she does something wrong, ask her to put herself into another person’s shoes. For a more advanced lesson in empathy, encourage her to think about the feelings of people very different from herself. Ask her to contemplate why her teacher, her parents, or her little brother might do something. Prompting your child to understand another person’s state of mind can help her begin to investigate these issues on her own as she matures.

Teach Impulse Control
Children are impulsive creatures, but impulse control plays a surprising role in emotional intelligence. Children who can control their immediate reactions to things have an additional moment to think about another person’s feelings. They’re also less likely to say things they regret. Reward your child for practicing patience and impulse control, and allow her to watch you doing the same thing. If you avoid yelling and you apologize when you’re wrong, your child will quickly learn the value of these skills.

Talk About Social Skills
Many children struggle with shyness or bullying, both of which can be obstacles to learning social skills and mastering emotional intelligence. If your child is struggling with making friends, help her out by giving her ideas of discussion topics or asking her if there’s any area that’s really difficult for her with friends. Avoid lecturing her or telling her she needs to make new friends. Instead, emphasize that friendship—like almost everything else—is a skill that most people need a little help to master.

Encourage Discussion
Children who can talk openly and honestly with their parents tend to have higher emotional intelligence scores. Don’t punish your child for disagreeing with you or the rules, and solicit her opinion on issues that affect her as much as possible. This teaches your child to tolerate different viewpoints, allows her to master the art of critical thinking, and gives her additional practice at conversational skills.


  1. Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Stern, R. (n.d.). Social and emotional learning: What is it? How can we use it to help our children? NYU Child Study Center. Retrieved from

Related articles:
“Bad” Kid or “Bad” Behavior and How It Shapes a Child’s Self-esteem
Mommy Guilt, Part 2: Case Illustration
Importance of Coping Skills, Part 2: Building Resilience

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  • Johnathan Hunt

    August 2nd, 2012 at 5:15 PM

    So, are we teaching our children to manipulate other people by teaching this skill? Or, are we simply giving them a skill that will make them more competitive in an increasingly demanding work place? I suppose the answer doesn’t really matter all that much. Who doesn’t want to teach her child these things? But, in the end, good parents have been teaching these skills since the dawn of time without anyone needing to research the matter.

  • jean m

    June 22nd, 2018 at 3:28 PM

    no, we haven’t been thus the result of knowing more about how to respond as a parent in a kind and loving modeling way has not been taught since the dawn of civilization.

  • Jon

    August 2nd, 2012 at 10:37 PM

    Good pointers, especially to first time parents.I couldn’t agree more with the last point that you have made here.Most parents try and preach things without giving the child an opportunity to talk or give his views.A healthy relationship is one in which there is discussion and teaching life skills to a child needs a lot of discussing!

  • TP

    August 3rd, 2012 at 7:18 PM

    Having conversations seems like the best way to teach your children emotional intelligence.I say that because when you have an open and clear conversation with them,you can ask them what they perceive your thoughts to be and then give them an opportunity to compare that with what was in your mind in reality.Practice is much better than theory as always.

  • Madison

    August 5th, 2012 at 4:36 AM

    The more that children are allowed to talk about things with their parents and to feel safe in that relationship then the more well rounded and balanced that those children are going to tend to be. When children feel like they cannot talk to mom and dad, or they have a fear that they will be chastised for the things that you need to talk about, that is when you start to to have issues with the kids. Children have to know that they are safe and loved, cared for but with no limits. They have to be made to feel free to be who and what they are and to know that their parents will be there to support them no matter what they do. They have to be given freedom yet with limits, and to be taught right from wrong, with the best ways to express their emotions and deal with the. This is what a good parent child relationship for a healthy child will look like.

  • Katherine Gordy Levine

    August 5th, 2012 at 12:26 PM

    While living with over 300 teens in trouble with the law, I developed a me-to-you response when Active listening did not work.

    You want (state what the child wants) I can’t to that, what else can I do to help?

    Also developed several other techniques for when more is needed than just what you suggest. These are detailed in my recently republished as an E-book When Good Kids Do Bad Things.

    Some teens have been through so much lots of strategies are needed.

  • Marcus

    August 6th, 2012 at 4:33 AM

    Taking the time to listen to your children and be involved in what they are saying, well, that’s really important in the eyes of a child.

  • Huffman

    August 7th, 2012 at 4:03 PM

    It takes so much to teach your child how to have empathy for others and to be in tune with their peers, but honestly, one of the biggest truths that I have discovered is that they look to the parents and adults in their lives for guidance when it comes to knowing how others should be treated. This is what makes them smart about life in general, and that is seeing responsible adults do good things, things that benefit them and others in a positive manner. There is no better role model in their lives than you.

  • Trish

    January 6th, 2013 at 11:22 AM

    Found that listening to my child’s entire response became important as a teen. He was raised to treat others the way he would want to be treated. Also was around adults a lot when he was a younger child. Could see the difference in how he responded in relation to children who hadn’t been around adults much. Was very mature in his thinking and behavior. Thank you for sharing this! Think it would be great for my niece to read to parent her son!

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